6 min read
27 Mar

Stone by stone we’ve built these walls between us  

Arnor Dan

(from the song “Stone by Stone”)  


We all know those professional or personal situations where disagreements and negotiations simply reach a stage where it feels as if we have become stuck in our respective positions, where the parties cannot budge a centimeter, where no further concessions can be made, where any progress seems impossible or, at best, highly unlikely. We start thinking of throwing in the proverbial towel, and accept that we have failed in resolving this conflict, this negotiation (all negotiations are forms of conflict). This article takes a look at the possible adverse consequences of these conflict impasse situations, and a few conflict strategies that could help us break through those walls.

 Consequences of conflict impasse 

The fact that the conflict remains unresolved between the parties is not the only, or even always the biggest, problem caused by conflict impasse. The frustrations caused by such deadlocks cause a cascade of interlinked conflict outcomes which can be hard to notice, difficult to resolve, and yet become secondary conflict symptoms that leads to increasing spirals of trouble between the parties. We look at a few. 

Parties that fail to resolve their conflicts can, when an impasse becomes clear, become very rigid in their conflict responses. Malice and bad motives are easily and often ascribed to the other side, and conflict rigidity leads to such parties becoming increasingly less willing, and less able, to fairly consider alternative solutions. An already complex situation now gets bedevilled by additional motives and suspicions, real or imagined, being ascribed to the opponents: how can they be so unreasonable, how can they not see our point. This increasingly starts feeding on itself, with increased levels of suspicion, anger, and an increased willingness to say or do unhelpful things that of course further derails the resolution process. Things are said or done that get increasingly difficult to walk back, egos become involved, and frustration may lead to desperation. Bridges get burned, and soon the one problem has become five problems. 

Another “solution” to conflict impasse we find in practice is often the quick and easy compromise. As soon as the impasse wall is hit, a party or the parties start putting together compromise solutions that may lead to short-term perceived resolution but cause long-term problems such as a loss of trust (in process or persons), resentment, a failure to timeously deal with the real conflict causes and so on. As these examples show, conflict impasse should be identified early, accurately assessed and effectively dealt with. We consider a few practical strategies applicable to both the professional or personal spheres of conflict. 

A few practical strategies to help you break through

1. Remain realistic Conflict impasse can often be uncomfortable reminders that we should align our goals with reality. Are you maybe stuck in this conflict because your expectations are unrealistic? Spend some time in considering your goals in a calm and dispassionate manner. 

2. Step back from symptoms and consider the causes 

Conflict symptoms have a tendency to draw us deeper into the conflict, and we end up on spirals of endless arguments dealing with the symptoms of the conflict: rudeness and personal slights, unreasonable demands, intransigence, places in the negotiations where parties get stuck are often crucially important but nevertheless only the symptoms of the deeper, underlying causes of the conflict. Getting this crucial step wrong, mistakenly dealing with symptoms instead of causes, will get you to the impasse wall every time. Here some coaching and experience will show you the important difference between positions and interests, how to apply that in your negotiations, the importance of face saving and identity conflicts, and how to effectively elicit the information that you need from your negotiation partner. 

3. Remember the differentiation phase 

Due to time, commercial and other pressures we often tend to move straight to the (hopefully) resolution phase of the negotiations and the conflict. This is of course understandable, especially where the conflict appears to be a simple one. And therein lies one of the most subtle, but most harmful, traps of conflict impasse. In that understandable rush to resolution, we skip important parts of what we should have attended to, we deny ourselves crucial information that could have acted as building blocks in reaching resolution. Closely allied to this error is what Dr. Mark Szabo calls the Coherence Trap, where we rush to a speedy resolution, for seemingly valid reasons, by assessing and deciding on seemingly acceptable solutions before we have all the necessary information required for meaningful and sustainable resolution. So when you start staring at the conflict impasse wall, retrace your steps and notice the areas that you bypassed, try to now get the information that may help you reach that resolution, such as the importance of time, team pressures, third parties not at the table, public perceptions, internal differences, personal agendas and so on. 

4. Sometimes it takes more than two to tango 

Conflict impasse is often created by the parties getting into a rut in their thinking: about each other, about their goals, about their options. Consider running the impasse past a suitable colleague or friend, depending on the circumstances, and see if an outsider can maybe bring a fresh perspective. This category may include the possibility of adding or removing a party in the conflict negotiations, where such a party may be, in reality or in perception, be contributing to the impasse. And yes, that may include removing yourself from that specific conflict negotiation. 

5. Cleaning or changing lenses 

Many conflict impasse is caused by a repeated consideration of a conflict through a specific set of lenses, a specific way of looking and framing a problem. Our words form our walls in many conflicts, and changing the way we see, and frame, a conflict often brings with it new perspectives and new options. Is the deadlocked wage negotiations about the employees wanting to destroy the company, or is it an exercise where the parties can see how each can arrive at a sustainable living income, are we arguing about the good reasons why we should get divorced, or should we look at this from a more practical aspect, for instance what the consequences of such a divorce would be, or whether we have reasons why we want to stay together. Try to change the mood in the room from an adversarial or hostile one to one where problem-solving becomes the main, openly admitted, goal. How can we both benefit from this, how can we make that happen? 

6. Small steps vs home runs 

We often want to solve a painful, costly or unpleasant conflict in one big sweep. Again, this is perfectly understandable. I want A, B and C, and we must get that done by Monday 2pm. And often we create our impasse right there, without realising that we have built the wall ourselves. Complex, difficult conflicts are often resolved step by patient step, with no quick and easy fixes available, and with expectations for those quick fixes creating its own pressures and frustrations. What if we can resolve A and B, and ring-fence C for later on? The experienced conflict negotiator will know that it is relatively easy to reject A, B and C because you insist on it, but if we have resolved issues A and B, it becomes more tempting to now also try to resolve C. Small steps of success also builds a sense of trust in your counterpart, and it shows the parties that progress and resolution are possible. A sense of what is possible replaces a possible prevailing sense of the impossible. 

7. Contingency resolutions 

Fear of failure, distrust and general cautionary policies are often significant causes of conflict impasse, without the parties being prepared to discuss it openly, or even being aware of that being a main contributing factor to the impasse. A handy conflict tool in skilled hands would be to make use of contingent agreements in order to break deadlocks and to negate trust issues or to deal with uncertain future events. In this way we can agree to an 8% annual wage increase in December if we meet operational targets A, B and C, we can continue our friendship if you stop asking for loans, and so on. Clearly described and agreed upon contingency agreements act as effective safeguards and often removes conflict obstacles. 

8. Use mediation  

A skilled mediator can be given the task to simply seek the resolution of the impasse without necessarily being involved in the primary negotiations. Find out why we are stuck here and get us through to the other side. In Europe and the US this is a popular and effective use of mediation. When done skilfully this maintains or restores the relationship between the parties, saves time and money, and leads to resolution on the main issues involved in the conflict negotiations. This could include specified external expert advice on limited issues relevant to the impasse, for instance, would my demands remain the same if I had expert outside advice on say the value of the properties in the neighbourhood, or the actual income of the business, or what salaries in the industry really are at this time? 

9. Candidly consider, and discuss, the parties respective BATNA and WATNA 

While these two conflict negotiation concepts deserve a more detailed consideration, a summarised mention of their existence and use could prove to be of value here. Simply put, a party’s BATNA is their Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement, with the WATNA being their Worst Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. Put even simpler, what is the anticipated worst or best thing that happens if this conflict is not resolved?  It is enormously helpful to accurately assess what your best, and worst possible result is if you and your opponent remain locked in this conflict. An employee strike, the loss of the deal, the friendship, having to negotiate with a new supplier? Often, being reminded of what our best and worst alternatives are brings our current options and attitudes (and possible solutions) into sharper contrast and focus. Discussing and exploring these various alternatives, as they relate to both sides, in an honest, respectful and non-threatening way with the other party can dissolve those impasse obstacles. 


As our brief investigation shows, conflict impasse can create tremendous professional and personal harm, sometimes in very subtle ways, and an already complex and unpleasant conflict negotiation can multiply into a conflict of many additional layers and nuances if not resolved effectively. These suggested conflict strategies will hopefully guide you through these conflict obstacles. 

Summary of main sources, references and suggested reading 

1. Vlok, Andre, Dangerous Magic: essays on conflict resolution in South Africa, Paradigm Media (2022) 

2. Various relevant articles on the Conflict Conversations blog at www.conflict-conversations.co.za 

  • Full references, further reading material, courses, coaching and study material are available on request.


(Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for any further information

Andre Vlok 

March 2024

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